Direct daily flights between Billings and Dallas saw ups and downs through their first six months of operation, slumping amid a smoky wildfire season but picking up to finish 2017.
Billings Logan International Airport dipped into its revenue-guarantee fund a bit, paying American Airlines $250,000 to make up for a slow fall.
The revenue guarantee was an incentive for the yearlong contract between a Billings coalition and American Airlines, which brought the direct flights to the airport starting in June. The money came from a federal grant and via pledges from more than 20 local businesses.
The first three months of operation saw strong ridership, with flights more than 80 percent full in June and July. As the fire season intensified in late summer, capacity slowed.
“They did really well until August, when it started tailing down,” said Kevin Ploehn, Billings director of aviation and transit.
October saw the lowest capacity, averaging at 67 percent, according to numbers released by the Billings Chamber of Commerce. Ploehn said in August that 70 percent was an estimated capacity for the airline to break even, though many factors contribute to that figure.
As a result, American Airlines received some of the guarantee money. Of the $250,000 paid, $121,543 came from the local business supporters, according to the Chamber. The amount paid is about 20 percent of the amount guaranteed for the full year.
And after a slow fall, ridership appears to be increasing again. November and December averaged around 80 percent capacity, according to the Chamber.
“That actually was pretty surprising to me," Ploehn said. "Once the tourist season is done, you start to see that slide take place.”
While summertime flyers mostly came from Dallas to Billings, Ploehn said that wintertime flyers are increasingly starting in Billings and going down south. With that, the shoulder season is looking a bit busier than usual.
American Airlines indicated that it would wait until a year of service has passed to review the contract and explore other flights, according to the Chamber. There's interest for a second flight to Phoenix or Chicago, according to the Chamber.
The first few months of the year is typically a slow time for flights, Ploehn said. But the return of the NAIA women's national basketball tournament could quickly fill seats with participating schools and fans.
“American serves the southeast very well," Ploehn said. "That wasn’t available for us last year for those teams.”